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Leading A Startup: 3 Keys For New Leaders


by Natasha Wallace, author of “The Conscious Effect: 50 Lessons for Better Organizational Wellbeing

The world of work is changing more rapidly than ever. As a leader, it’s important to recognize what that means for the way in which you and others work. Your organization and your workforce depend on your ability to stay healthy, maintain a high level of performance, and continue your own growth. That means learning how to take better care of yourself, and then creating the conditions that enable others to do the same. For always-on leaders of startups, this can be the hardest challenge of all.

In new, hungry, often lean organizations, leaders are under tremendous pressure to deliver. Creating or building something new means you usually don’t have established processes, systems or resources in place. This is leadership magnified — and it takes up a lot of mental bandwidth and energy.

To enable yourself and your people to most effectively channel your energy, focus on these three keys:

1. Prioritize Relationships Over Transactions.

Relationships make the business world go round. The key to navigating relationships with your team at work is finding out about people while not over-sharing personal details. (They don’t need to know your family issues, for instance.)

Understand what individual employees like doing. Find out what work energizes them and what values they hold important. Learn their goals and objectives: what do they want to accomplish with their work? Employees are more engaged and do better work when they good relationships with their managers and believe that they matter. Regularly connect with people and check in to find out how they’re doing and what they need. In fact, when managers and employees don’t regularly check in, it can negatively impact mental health.

2. Create Fertile Ground for Growth.

Startups need to grow — often rapidly. But employees are much more likely to leave a job if they don’t feel they are making progress, and this is far more pronounced in a startup environment. The individuals who join at the earliest stages of a company’s growth are normally looking for challenge: unless you are able to stretch them, they’ll find a company who is. If you commit to supporting employee growth and your employees feel it, they’re going to be better able and willing to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. That means providing career development, and enabling people to progress in their job by learning new skills and improving existing ones. As a leader, cultivate a growth mindset: believe that the people around you can achieve what they need to, even if they’re not yet there yet.

Coach them to achieve their aims. Your role is to give them direction and be clear about what you want the outcomes to be. Then, get out of the way and let them deliver. You may want to connect them with mentors and coworkers. Share your experiences, brainstorm ideas together. But don’t tell them what to do. You employ these people to generate solutions and to get their job done. When you become the fulcrum for all decisions and all work, you slow the whole thing down. So let people play to their own strengths, be there for support, and let them find their own answers — even if it’s new territory for them. The approach will give them the challenge they need, and give you the headspace to focus on what you need to get done.

3. Your Determination is Contagious.

When the work we do aligns with our purpose and our values, we generate positive energy — and that energy is contagious. Too often we understand that by experiencing the opposite: an environment that’s so scattered and conflicted that it seems to obstruct our own sense of direction. Startup leadership requires clarity as well as energy: stay clear in your own sense of purpose and you will transmit that mission and determination to your people. And protect your right to ‘radically focus’ on what matters most, both in terms of purpose and deliverables, or you’ll get derailed. Many of the best business ideas go nowhere because leaders lacked the determination and focus to sustain momentum.

Of course there are many reasons to lose faith — competitors doing impressive work, naysayers, or a case of imposter syndrome. But when people see you being tirelessly dedicated, when they see your passion to make it work, it’s infectious. So be sure to clarify how what you’re doing aligns with your purpose, and then find others whose purpose aligns too. There will be plenty of others who believe in what you’re doing. By staying focused on those ‘bright spots,’ you’ll get through even the toughest times. When you know where you want to get to, you can focus on what you’ll need to do to get there, involving the team in figuring that out too.

When leaders prioritize relationships, support people’s growth, and are courageous in their approach, they generate the exponential energy that’s required for continued growth and remove the barriers to success. And when everyone involved is enabled to do their part, that means leaders can take care of their own needs as well — and that’s a great example to set for everyone. And there’s a stronger foundation for making the shift from the frenetic pace of a startup to a sustained enterprise.


Natasha Wallace is founder and chief coach of Conscious Works, a coaching and leadership development company specializing in wellbeing. Having spent many years working in organizational and leadership development and as a former HR Director, Natasha left her job and set up her company. She is author of “The Conscious Effect: 50 Lessons for Better Organizational Wellbeing“.

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